- Thou Shalt Be Friendly. You think that this is a given, but you many people tell me that they have visited churches that are not friendly. People can enter and leave without someone greeting them or even smiling at them–it really happens! I visited a church one time and the pastor passed me three times without stopping once to greet me. This was a small church, so it wasn’t like he wouldn’t know whether I was a visitor or a member. Be friendly!
- Thou Shalt Communicate Kindness. Greet guests with a firm handshake, open posture, and smile. It is not enough to be friendly–thought that’s a first step. Ask the names of guests and try to use their names in the course of the conversation. Don’t forget to introduce yourself too!
- Thou Shalt Be Mindful of Your Surroundings. Pay attention to who is near you in the pews. You are the first line of greeting when a guest comes, and if you see someone new in your section of the church, follow the first two commandments, then let the nearest staff member know so we can do it too!
- Thou Shalt Invite Guests to Something Significant. How do we get guests to stay and participate at church? Invite them to lunch or coffee. Church is not like social media, where you check in and out of people’s lives at your convenience. We are the church and we are to make disciples, so guests need to feel a part of it to start that journey. Invite people somewhere: to coffee, to lunch, to Sunday School, or to a gathering. It may be inconvenient, but too bad. Someone a long time ago went out of their way to welcome you, so now its your turn to do the same for others.
- Thou Shalt Help with the Children. If guests have young children, be kind and accommodating to the family. Point out where the restrooms and nursery are, ask the names and ages of the children, have conversations with the children–they need to feel a sense of belonging too. Get one of the staff to introduce the children to our children and youth leaders. If the children are vocal or playful during worship, play with them silently–don’t worry about the sermon, you can catch it online at home. For now, focus on the children–they are miracles, each and every one, and you may be the first of Christ’s ambassadors they’ve ever met!!
- Thou Shalt Not Ask Too Many Questions. When you welcome a guest, don’t ask too many questions. For instance, don’t say, “Oh, and is this your mother?” because you may get the response: “NO! THAT’S MY WIFE!” If there is a single guest, don’t ask if he or she is married or what not. Follow through on the fourth commandment, and then you may–may!–eventually get the emotional permission to ask probing questions.
- Thou Shalt Not Comment on Appearances (except for children). People love to hear praises and compliments about their children, but please refrain from commenting on the appearances of adults. It is not appropriate to say, “You are very pretty,” or worse, “Your wife is very pretty.” If you want to be nice, be broad–“You have a beautiful family.”
- Thou Shalt Not be Culturally Insensitive. Kristina and I once visited a primarily African American congregation, and the first thing the greeter said was, “Wow, we don’t get visitors like you here often.” We were not impressed and we never returned. If a guest visits who may be an ethnic, gendered, or racial minority, don’t make it awkward. Don’t say, “We don’t get a lot of your kind here,” or, “Wow, it’s nice to have you…so, as a Mexican, what do you think of that comment about immigration that Trump said the other day?” or, “Hey, you’re the perfect person to ask this: What do you think about those Confederate statues being removed from public parks?” All of these questions are either racist or bigoted in one form or fashion. Other questions can be misogynistic, so just treat everyone the same and be sensitive.
- Thou Shalt Not Use Off-Color Humor. First impressions are everything, and people may not share the same kind of humor as you. Do not try to use humor to break any tension or awkwardness in the greeting. Be yourself, but just be sensitive (see Commandment 8). So if you feel inclined to make a joke, just don’t. Be warm and friendly, but be professional. The other day, someone lamented that they were afraid to joke around anymore because of all of the sexual harassment suits in the news lately: “Everyone is so sensitive these days,” he said. Yes, that’s right–the truth is that that kind of humor has always been wrong–the fact that no one is laughing anymore is a good and godly thing, trust me. Locker room talk is not appropriate for the Christ-following Christian.
- Thou Shalt Not Make Assumptions. Do not assume that because a guest looks or talks a certain way, that you have them “pegged.” People who visit churches are taking a risk, and there is a level of vulnerability we need to respect. One of the ways we respect strangers is to give them the room to surprise us and perchance become our best friends. That is what it means to be an inclusive, welcoming church: We welcome strangers into our sacred space–with all our own strangeness thrown in the mix–only to become fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith.Since we all do not start out in the same place, our journeys vary, but as God’s creatures made in God’s image, we can all learn from each other. Plus, we don’t want to become “That church!”
St. Paul had his fair share of persecution. The book of Acts records how Paul, persecutor–turned–evangelist, founded churches and suffered as a result. The book concludes with Paul in jail, his fate hanging in the balance.
Founding a little church in the Macedonian city of Thessalonica was especially difficult. Acts 17 states that he preached about Jesus in the synagogue and won only a few converts; the rest gathered an angry mob and accused him of treason. He barely escaped to Athens.
The Bible contains two letters that Paul and his fellow ministers, Timothy and Silas, wrote to the new church in Thessalonica. In the letters, Paul expressed concern as well as praise for the church’s perseverance.
He sent Timothy back to the church in order to encourage them “so that no one would be shaken by these persecutions” (3:3a).
Paul, however, takes an odd turn after that. Rather than encouraging them to rebel or retaliate against their foes, Paul reminded them that persecution was a part of what it meant to be a Christian.
“You yourselves know,” he wrote, “that this is what we are destined for…we told you beforehand that we were to suffer persecution” (3:3b-4).
The church needed reminding that when they chose to follow the crucified Lord, they too promised to follow him even unto death.
Even Jesus did not shy away from this truth: “Those who do pick up their cross and follow me cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:23).
Over the past year, I have heard many Christians claim they are being persecuted for their faith. Some say that persecution comes from an over-extended government bent on imposing morally questionable legislation, while others argue that persecution is a result of the loss of Constitutional rights.
Yet, when compared with Christians in the rest of the world–many of whom face exile, death, torture, rape, and exploitation directly due to their faith in Christ–it seems like what we call persecution is merely an inconvenience more than anything else.
According to Halee Gray Scott writing for Christianity Today, nearly 100 Christians are martyred for their faith every month, and two-thirds of the world’s nations discriminate against Christianity as a general rule.
According to Scott, “We’re incensed when a millionaire is suspended from a reality television shows for expressing his faith in a coarse manner…But we turn our heads and avert our eyes when the blood of the martyrs, our fellow Christians, cry out to us from the ground.”
I agree with Scott, and I would add that we spend too much time trying to retaliate against those who seem hostile while neglecting to repent for some of the things we say and do in the public sphere.
In the midst of persecution Christians have the greatest opportunity to reflect the best of the Gospel: Even as recipients of hostility, we share the love of a non-violent Lord who declared that compassion, forgiveness, and inclusion–not exclusion or divisive speech–are holy actions that represent a holy, merciful God.
While rejoicing in spite of hardship, we bear testimony that God’s purposes for us will triumph even over death itself. We bear witness to a heavenly call in which we are not commanded to fight back, but to forgive and share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul wrote that the Thessalonian church communicated “the gospel of faith and love” (3:6). Theirs was not a campaign using worldly tactics, but of living out the Good News in which Jesus was King of kings and Lord of lords.
They exchanged protest signs for faith, letters to editors for planting seeds of mercy. They included people in their fellowship rather than exclude others who did not share their particular vision of the world.
I’m still not convinced that Christians are persecuted for faith in this great country of ours. The world is doing exactly what the world always has done, it cannot do any other. But Christians who claim to follow Christ have the choice to do what is right, say what is wholesome, and advocate on behalf of the oppressed rather than the privileged few.
“Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you and praise your name, for in perfect faithfulness you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago…
You have been a refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.
On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine–the best of meats and the finest of wines.” (Isaiah 25:1, 4, 6)
“Blessed are those who are invited to the supper of the Lamb.” (Rev. 19:9)
We have been talking about vision: God’s vision–a picture or image–of the future. For us. For our church.
We believe that God has a vision for each one of us and for our church because God is in the revelation business. We serve a “self-disclosing” God who knows us intimately.
One of the ways God reveals Himself is through the Bible, the inspired Word of God. Too often, the Bible is used as a weapon of the faith–a sword with which to thump, something to throw at people who are living in sin.
The Bible has been used to divide churches. The Bible does say that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, to separate bone and marrow, but that does not mean it is to be used to divide God’s people.
Nor should we reduce the Bible to a set of absolutes, rules, and principles. The Bible is not simply a rule book; nor is it something that outlines a bunch of “dos and don’ts.”
The Bible is inspired. It is authoritative. Our church’s constitution affirms that the Bible is to be the “basis of all our beliefs.” Our earliest Baptist forefathers made the Bible a central aspect (and in some cases the foundation) of our faith. As early as 1654, we have a confession that declares that Scripture must “therefore be the rule of thy faith and practice.”*
As early as the mid-1600s, Baptists set out to define how we are to interpret the scriptures. In that day, they spoke out against the Quakers, who emphasized illumination, or the “inner light” of the Holy Spirit. Baptists, like Thomas Collier, argued that Christians must balance illumination by the Holy Spirit with the “letter” of scripture (revelation). To emphasize one at the expense of the other is dangerous and in many cases unreliable.
We, therefore, take this Book to be authoritative, and we echo our Baptist ancestors when we confess that every believer has the right to read and interpret the scripture under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
But that brings us back to the “how” of the Bible’s authority, especially when it comes to each church’s calling in God. For Trinity, we have always seen the Bible as the story of God’s interaction with His creation–the Biblical story is one not made up of abstract principles, but of relationships.
It is within God’s relationship with all creation that God casts a vision for all of creation. God paints a picture for us in Scripture of what our future holds.
We catch a glimpse of that vision in the book of Isaiah. Isaiah’s ministry came about during a turbulent time in Judah’s (the southern kingdom of Israel) history. King Asa was trying to hold a fragile nation together while warding off attacks from both the Israel kingdom and the Assyrians.
Isaiah reminded King Asa that God was in the mix, and he reminded Asa that God expected faithfulness in the face of trails and tribulations: “If you do not stand firm in faith, you will not stand at all,” Isaiah warned in 7:9.
But God’s presence was also a promise. Only five verses later (7:14), Isaiah promised Asa that God will be Emmanuel, “God with us,” and will save His people from certain destruction.
It is within this political milieu, when people are at their most vulnerable and unable to see the forest from the individuals trees, that God paints a picture of Israel’s future.
In Isaiah 25, God does just that. The vision that God casts has certain elements. First, God has plans for Israel that were formed early on in humanity’s history (v. 1): “things planned long ago.”
Second, God’s vision is universal and inclusive. In it, Isaiah imagined Zion as a place where all people from every tribe and nation will gather around a great banquet table. Those who are on the margins will have a special place in this banquet.
The vision is like that found in Psalm 23: “You set a table before my enemies; my cup overflows.”
While the poor, the marginalized, the outcast, and lame feast on God’s nourishing Word of Life, God will “swallow up death” in the final days.
The image and vision of a great feast is found throughout Scripture. It signifies the inclusive Good News in which everyone can find a place at God’s table.
Jesus embodied this very vision in his ministry. For him, feasting with “tax collectors and sinners” was God’s way of bringing that vision to fruition. In Luke 14:12-24, Jesus tells his followers to do the same; and, like God, invite the people who have no belonging in the greater society.
In Luke 14, Jesus tells a host to avoid inviting the rich and people-who-have-it-all-together. They have no need of a feast, no need of God’s presence. Jesus tells him to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind instead.
When this type of feast takes place with these types of folks, God’s vision breaks into creation here and now.
Jesus takes that vision further. Not only does he feast with tax collectors and sinners, he also puts them in places of leadership. Judas the Betrayer was treasurer. Matthew the tax collector and Thomas the Doubter were disciples. Mary the Prostitute was by Jesus’ side, even unto death. Jesus told Peter, the very scoundrel who betrayed Jesus and whom Jesus called “satan,” that it was upon him that Jesus will build his church.
Imagine that? God’s vision is one that is so radical, even sinners have a seat at the table and a place in the ministry of God’s kingdom. The very people who are broken and in most need of God’s salvation are blessed, especially when they find themselves eating and serving with a “Lamb” who was broken on their behalf.
Since its inception in 1984, Trinity Baptist Church has taken on this type of biblical vision in its ministry to all people. Our founding pastor embodied this type of vision when he initiated Bible studies at the local bar. Two ex-drug users heeded this vision when they established our Narcotics Anonymous ministry, which still meets to this day every Thursday night.
And we have lived into this vision when we have included all kinds of people in our ministries, people not too dissimilar from the folks who followed Jesus.
These have been people who curse like sailors and meet Jesus in the throes of addiction and brokenness. These have been people who are poor and are on the margins of society. These have been people not welcomed in a large segment of our society because they didn’t “play the part of the good Christian.”
We at Trinity Baptist do declare that God’s Word is authoritative, but we also declare that God’s biblical–biblical–vision for our church is not always the most popular.
I must admit that we may fly under the radar in Baptist life in many aspects of our ministry. Ours is too small of a church to be noticed by any of the big Baptist conventions in our area. Yet, I can’t help but to say that our core values–as motivated and inspired by this type of reading of Scripture–may bring us critical attention one of these days.
I am not saying this to be controversial. Nor do I need to define any particular position on any particular social or cultural issue–we are too theological diverse for that.
But I am confident that when we minister faithfully under our divine mandate as a church, serving, welcoming, and including the people whom we invite to the table and include in our circles of leadership, we will be doing God’s will rather than the will of any bureaucracy, creed, or the whimsical will of man.
In 1677, at the Second London Conference of Baptists, the messengers agreed that people can get too wrapped up in their emotions when interpreting Scripture. They were afraid that relying on illumination too much, like the Quakers, may make human doctrine too subjective–in their words, humankind is too arbitrary, “tost too and fro” like a boat in a windstorm, to set boundaries that limit people’s experience of God.
We must balance the authority of God’s Word with the ongoing illumination that the Holy Spirit provides, and–like the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15–discern (as a community) how God still speaks to us today.
For Trinity Baptist Church, God’s biblical vision is one that defines the nature and the authority of our ministry. It is a vision that includes a great banquet feast–a place where everyone has a seat.
H. Leon McBeth, The Baptist Heritage: Four Centuries of Baptist Witness, (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1987), pp. 70-73.